Sunday, October 07, 2012

Making History the DayGlo Way

Posted by Michal Meyer on 10/07 at 08:51 PM

I had passed through graduate school dutifully reading every history of science book and article assigned me. I assumed the contents of these books to be important, otherwise why assign them? And they were relevant, thought provoking and all those good things academic texts are supposed to be. I never gave their relevance another thought until I joined the American Chemical Society’s National Historic Chemical Landmarks committee. This committee studies proposals that may or may not turn into historical landmarks and its goal is to fix in history those places, events, and even books considered worthy of memorialization.

This year’s landmarks include Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (or rather its legacy) and DayGlo Fluorescent Pigments. Events after the 1962 publication of Silent Spring—the declining number of birds due to widespread use of DDT, Earth Day, the creation of the EPA—all made Carson’s book resonate down the decades. Silent Spring has certainly become a part of modern history for anyone concerned with the environment, which makes it seem an obvious call—a case of recognizing history when it comes knocking.

What about the glow-in-the-day fluorescent pigments? I’d never heard of them before. They were certainly new in the 1930s and made a splash in advertising, psychedelic art, and more recently safety products–they made posters and objects leap out at viewers with their brightness. But if the committee had decided, for whatever reason, to reject the fluorescent pigments, would they be destined for history’s dustbin? Perhaps for a while, but I suspect some historian of technology or art would one day find these almost forgotten objects and their context fascinating. There are many books written about human-made objects (Apollo space suits, shoes, you name it), and no doubt the pigments themselves or the objects they end up covering will one day get a book-length treatment.

I suspect history is a bit like houses, which, once their newness wears off, go through a boring phase before becoming historically desirable. Making “history” is also a process. History doesn’t naturally assert itself – we pick and choose what we find interesting and relevant about the past.

Tags: dayglo, history


Comment posted by Paul Halpern on 10/14 at 06:35 PM

Great to hear about the new chemistry landmarks.  Looks like I’ll soon be on the American Physical Society historic sites committee (the equivalent to your committee, I believe).  If our respective committees identify any places associated with both chemistry and physics, we may have to negotiate where to put the historic plaques.

Comment posted by Michal Meyer on 10/15 at 06:37 AM

Thanks for your comment, Paul. I think if it comes to battle between the chemistry and physics historic committees I will have to support physics. My science background is in physics. (Just don’t tell anyone.)

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